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Memories of Britton Chance

Carol Weingarten / University of Pennsylvania

15 May 2011

Figure 1. The Dalai Lama, with Dr. Stanley Baum at his right, in the MRI control room looking at images of Brit's brain. Photo courtesy of Stanley Baum.

Figure 2. Brit relaxing after the MRI scanning session and listening to discussions between the Dalai Lama and other scientists. Photo courtesy of Stanley Baum.

Figure 3. Brit, the Dalai Lama, and the scanner. Photo courtesy of Stanley Baum.

Figure 4. The XIV Dalai Lama of Tibet. Photo courtesy of Stanley Baum.

The XIV Dalai Lama of Tibet has had a life-long interest in the study of mind. He also has had a keen interest in scientific approaches to understanding the nature of mind and knowledge in general. For example, in the late 1980s he began a series of discussions with scientists and philosophers called the Mind and Life Dialogues. I was aware of the Dalai Lama's interest in scientific understanding of the nature of mind and discussed with Dr. Stanley Baum, chairman of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, whether it might be possible for the Dalai Lama to observe some advances being made in neuroimaging. Thus, in 1990 Dr. Baum invited the Dalai Lama to observe imaging of the human body, including positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. A number of eminent scientists were also invited, including Britton Chance.

On the day of the visit, the Dalai Lama wished to be the subject for the demonstration of MRI of the brain. However, his assistants would not allow him to enter the scanner and therefore another subject was needed. Brit was present and volunteered to be the subject. He was so enthusiastic and jumped vigorously onto the table (at age 77). It was a joy to behold his delight. Brit was then scanned while the Dalai Lama watched images of Brit's brain emerge on the monitor in the control room. The imaging session was successful (Figures 1-4).

Although this was the first time that Brit met the Dalai Lama, he had previously met the Dalai Lama's personal physician, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, in 1989 in Seoul, Korea. Dr. Tenzin Choedrak was a senior faculty member of the Tibetan Medical Institute (Men-Tsee-Khang), a school for practitioners of traditional Tibetan medicine located in Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama had helped establish this institute in an effort to preserve and promote traditional Tibetan medical approaches. As part of this effort, there was also a wish to better understand and engage with modern medical and scientific approaches. I was aware of this interest and brought it to Brit's attention. Brit's unexpected response was to recommend that Dr. Choedrak and his team of young research oriented doctors attend the 1989 meeting of the Federation of Asian and Oceanian Biochemists and Molecular Biologists in Seoul, Korea. Dr. Choedrak and his associates gave a pharmacognosy poster presentation at the conference. Brit also very kindly arranged a visit for the Tibetan doctors with an important Korean institute for traditional medical practice in Seoul.

Brit and the Dalai Lama's interests in MR neuroimaging and the neurobiological basis of mind predated functional MRI studies of the brain by some years. However, Brit played a role in an even earlier proposal for the application of MRI to the neurosciences.

Sometime during 1982-1983, Dr. Felix Bloch (of the Bloch equations in magnetic resonance and Nobel laureate) visited Brit at the University of Pennsylvania. At that time, the department of Radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania had the first clinical MRI scanner capable of human imaging. It also had a small bore P31 nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instrument that Brit and his colleagues were using for early studies of the bioenergetics of human leg and arm muscle physiology. Brit asked me to take Dr. Bloch to see the P31 instrument. On perusing the instrument, Dr. Bloch said that day was the first day that he had ever seen NMR instrumentation that was used to study living human beings. He then added that having seen this, he now looked forward to the day when NMR would be applied to the study of psychology and when that happened it should be called "psychomagnetics."

These memories are examples of Brit's place at the frontiers of numerous scientific ideas, and of his openness, graciousness, and generosity to many kinds of people.

Grateful acknowledgment is given to Stanley Baum for helpful discussions and use of photographs and to Richard Weingarten, who helped arrange the visit of the Dalai Lama to the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Choedrak to the FAOBMB meeting in Seoul, for helpful discussions.